Imagine that you are a young child whose mother suddenly becomes ill. You’ve never been separated from her before, but paramedics come and she is whisked away with the sirens and bright lights of an ambulance, leaving you and your younger sibling with a police officer.
The officer reminds you of the television show where the bad guys were carted off to jail. You ride in a squad car to a hospital. You are checked by a nurse, and then you are sent to a shelter home where nice strangers take care of you. The very next day you are taken to yet another home made up of people that you have never seen before.
Such is the experience of a child entering the foster care system in one of the best-case scenarios. But, many children also experience neglect, abuse, or other chaotic situations in the home before coming into contact with the child protection system.
Because of this, Marcella Grandpre, senior social worker for Hennepin County, says that it takes a special person to commit to being a foster parent. Grandpre conducts informational meetings for prospective foster care parents, and although she says it is likely that a relative may intervene between the steps of removing a child from their home and placing them in a foster home, that is not the case for 80 to 100 kids per month in Hennepin County alone.
A family member who assumes responsibility for a child may at least have some idea of what to expect through family history or previous contact with the child. It’s much different for foster parents.
“Foster parents — they’re people who are opening their doors to someone we describe over the phone in all negatives,” Grandpre says. “We want everyone to know all the problems that they might face, and we might throw in one or two nice things [like] ‘…and they like to draw.’”
Grandpre explains that foster care is not as simple as allowing a child into your home. Along with the child often comes a social worker, a licensing social worker, the child’s therapist, or other siblings, and it probably involves the foster parent taking the child to visits with his or her family a couple of times per week.
Even with the challenges associated with taking a traumatized child into their home, there are still those who are willing to step up to the plate. Grandpre says that last year, approximately 65 percent of the people who chose to become regular foster parents in Hennepin County were African American. This number is slightly higher than the percentage of African American kids in need of foster care homes; Grandpre says that the response from the African American community has been tremendous.
The role of a foster parent is to provide interim care for a child while the parents work toward creating a safe environment for the child to return to. But in some instances, foster parents are interested both in helping to transition the child into reunification or in considering adoption when reunification does not look promising. These families are encouraged to consider the African American Adoption Option.
“[We] are extremely short on people in the African American community [who consider the Adoption Option], and I don’t know why,” Grandpre says. “It’s as if people are afraid that they are undermining reunification if they think they might be supporting adoption.”
Finding foster parents who will consider adopting a child is important because children 12 and under must be placed in a permanent home within a year to 18 months according to federal law. State law requires that children eight and under are placed in permanent homes in six months, but if a parent is making steps toward reuniting with their child, a judge can extend it to the federal limit. In the majority of cases, parents are making the effort.
In cases where reunification is not probable, there are people like Gloria and Walter Williams, who recently completed the adoption of 17-month-old twin boys who had been in their home since they were only days old. The Williams became involved with the Adoption Option program through their church.
Walter Williams admits that he was once a skeptic. But then, “I saw the difference the kids brought to the adults in our church lives… The more I saw the interaction that was going on between the children with the foster parents, the more I started thinking about it. And just seeing what was going on in church sort of won me over.”
He says he once believed that biological ties to a child gave a parent an advantage. But after being a foster parent, he says, “You have to put some work in no matter which way you look at it. I’m so happy with our boys. Our boys were a godsend. I couldn’t love them any harder if my wife gave birth to them.”
Gloria Williams says that, based on her experiences and those of many of their church members, community involvement is a must. “A lot people, when they get older they just want time to themselves and just [want] not to be bothered with children. But there’s a lot of kids out there due to the situations that we have with meth use in Minnesota, and there’s a lot of children out there that need homes.”
Even though the adoption is final, both the Williams agree that keeping ties with the biological family is important. They keep in contact with the twins’ father, and the twins have monthly visits with their biological grandparents.
But the Williams are far from alone in their quest to support children. There is also Barbara White, for example, who has been a foster parent since 1992.
“My aunt was actually an inspiration to me,” White says. “I used to go over and help with the [foster] kids and sit and rock babies… She used to tell me I had a special touch.”
White does interim care and cares for children of all ages, but right now her focus is on teenaged girls. And though she describes it as a challenge, she is committed, saying the kids are often so focused on the present that they don’t consider how their choices may damage their future.
“I have a lot of them that all they can think about doing is having a baby… In their minds they fantasize and romanticize [about] being an adult. I think at some point we all did… [But] they want to do it right now, and they really think they’re ready for it.”
White says that for the group of girls she comes into contact with, she is “their reality check.” Her goal is to keep as many girls off the street as possible.
She explains that once a child has finished high school or reached his or her 19th birthday, they are pretty much on their own. Her intentions are to steer girls toward four-year institutions and prepare them for this. Once they come into her home, her first goal is to help them raise their grade-point average.
She realizes that college is not for everyone, so if they are sure that they don’t want to pursue going to a four-year college, she helps move them toward positive alternatives such as jobs, trade schools, or community college.
Although many foster parents feel that teenaged girls are too much of a challenge, for White there is a positive side: “Doing foster care gives me probably the greatest reward of my life, especially when I see the kids make it…. When Mother’s Day comes around, I get these big, beautiful cards from children that I didn’t bring into the world saying, ‘Thank you for saving my life.’”
Persons interested in becoming foster parents can call 612-348-KIDS if they live in Hennepin County, or 651-266-KIDS if they live in Ramsey County.
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.